By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Rufus Thomas is not certain of the year--he figures it was 1943, though it might have been 1950--but he recalls the moment with astounding clarity. He was performing in Currie's Club Tropicana, a nightclub on the north side of Memphis, Tennessee, when a man walked through the door carrying a bulky tape recorder and a microphone.
The man, Jesse Erickson, introduced himself to Thomas and asked if he could set up and record the band for his record label, a tiny operation out of Dallas. Thomas had never heard of the label but agreed, and Erickson began rolling the tape, capturing two songs--the jump-blues of "I'll Be Good" and the bluesy "I'm So Worried."
When they were released, as Star Talent Records number 807, the 78 RPM single bombed. "The record sold five copies," Thomas says from his home in Memphis. "and I bought four of them."
Both songs, like the label for which they were recorded, have long faded from memory (if anyone actually cared to think of them in the first place), and Thomas no longer owns any of the four copies of "I'll Be a Good Boy," though he desperately wants one for his collection. His brief moment as a recording artist for Star Talent Records has long been eclipsed by greater moments of fame--as the first successful artist on Sam Phillips' legendary Sun Records label (his "Bear Cat," the answer to "Hound Dog," hit Number 3 on the charts in 1953), as the Stax recording artist who scored numerous Top 10 hits with the likes of "Walkin' the Dog" and "Funky Chicken," as one of the first disc jockeys on the all-black WDIA-AM station in Memphis.
Yet the 78-year-old Thomas, one of Memphis' best-known and best-loved exporters of soul, still remembers what it felt like to see his name on a record label--to hear his voice coming from the grooves for the very first time. In a career filled with monumental highlights, it was the first glimpse at what lay ahead.
"I was working in a club as a singer, and it was something I wanted to do," Thomas says. "It was a chance. I just wanted to make a record. I never thought of getting rich. I just wanted to be known, be a recording artist. At that time, we really didn't have a lot of big names with black artists anyway--not a lot. I just wanted to be on that record."
That Thomas can't recall the year of his recording debut is hardly surprising. After all, even those who knew Jesse Erickson well--the performers who recorded for the label, those who hung out at his daughter's record store on Oakland Avenue--recall little about the man. Or, for that matter, the label itself.
Like so many other tiny independent hillbilly labels that sprung up in Dallas from the 1940s through the early '60s (from Longhorn Records to White Rock Records), Talent/Star Talent came and went with little notice outside of town, and most of its tales remain buried underneath the parking lot at 3313 Oakland Avenue. Were it not for the fanaticism of a few men in England, where small collectors' journals document obscure Texas music as though each song were the Dead Sea Scrolls, Talent likely would be forgotten forever.
Yet Talent Records (which also released albums under the Star Talent banner) stands as one of Dallas' greatest contributions to the history of modern music. With little fanfare or recognition, it was among the first labels to do what made Sun Records and Duke/Peacock in Houston legendary, releasing albums by white country artists and black bluesmen. Its catalog encompasses music that defines the Texas sound--bringing together archaic country blues from Willie Lane, brassy Western swing from Hoyle Nix and His West Texas Cowboys, dirt-floor honky-tonk from Boots and His Buddies, and the cowboy balladry of Curly Sanders.
Talent was not only Rufus Thomas' initial recording home but, perhaps more importantly, the first label to feature the works of Roeland Byrd, a New Orleans piano-pounder who performed under the name of Professor Longhair. It was for Erickson's label that Professor Longhair (with his Shuffling Hungarians) recorded his immortal "Mardi Gras in New Orleans" and its follow-up "She Ain't Got No Hair"--both of which would become giant hits for Atlantic Records, both of which would lay the foundation for the rock and roll and rhythm-and-blues that still emanate from the Crescent City.
Star Talent's roster also included several unknown blues and gospel artists: the country bluesman Willie Lane, a former inmate in Huntsville and a one-time recording artist for the Library of Congress; Sonny Boy Davis, whose "Rhythm Blues" stands as one of the great lost treasures of Texas blues; Rattlesnake Cooper; Ella Mae Goins; the Jackson Gospel Singers; and Cha-Cha Hogan.
Though Erickson failed to possess the business sense or musical smarts of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, he managed to compile in a very short time a catalog of 78 RPM singles that would represent a condensed history of Texas music.
Erickson--who distributed records regionally through his daughter's record store, Louise's, on Oakland--began the label as a showcase for Dallas' myriad honky-tonk artists, releasing more than 70 country and Western swing 78s throughout its brief existence. At the time, Dallas was jumping with honky-tonk talent, performers who gravitated to the Big D Jamboree at the Sportatorium and the Longhorn Ballroom, once owned by Bob Wills his own drunk self. They would congregate at Jim Beck's studio on Ross or at Sellar's Studio on Commerce, sessionmen trading tales and waiting for their shot at the microphone.